Imagine being in charge of an educational meeting, re-scheduling a hearing with city council members and dozens of students and faculty so that you could attend – and then not showing up, with no explanation.
This is what took place when CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez had the New York City Council’s Committee on Higher Education’s hearing on antisemitism rescheduled for June 30, only to not show up and offer no explanation.
Inna Vernikov, a Jewish Republican who represents District 48, had called on the chancellor to resign weeks ago. But along with a few others, she recently had a meeting with the chancellor and some of his officials.
“I believe the chancellor took me very seriously because he listened for two hours and listened attentively,” Vernikov told The Jewish Press. “They promised to make changes and committed to make changes. It’s clear they realize the situation is very dire. It’s unfortunate that it took my calling for the chancellor’s resignation to get that meeting in person, as they wanted to do a virtual meeting. But I’m looking forward to the future. I don’t wish to sit in the past at this point. I’m hoping the chancellor and CUNY will follow through.”
Vernikov said the chancellor had committed to including education about antisemitism as part of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training, as well as instituting a greater exchange program with Israel. She said he also said they will look into the possibility of adopting the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism, which is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
At the June 30 hearing, numerous Jewish CUNY students and faculty members as well as executives of the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America and other leading organizations testified in person or via Zoom, including Ilya Bratman and Tzvia Waronker. Bratman and Waronker joined Vernikov in the meeting with the chancellor. Bratman is not only a professor of English and John Jay and Baruch College, he also is the Hillel director for numerous campuses.
“I thought it was an incredible meeting and he didn’t even look at his watch once in the two hours,” Bratman told The Jewish Press. “I think he does care, and there is an opportunity for positive things to be done. There were definitely mistakes that were made in the past and it is important to fix things as there are 20,000 Jewish students on CUNY campuses. I’m enthusiastic for what will be implemented.”
In the June 30, Waronker, a student at John Jay College and a member of the student senate, said that she was once cornered and told not to tell people she was Jewish for her own safety.
She said she brought up that in a college town hall there was a professor who taught false information and that she heard the professor had called Jews “white power.” She said a graduate student told her all Jews are “rich, control the world, Israelis kill babies and Jewish women are greedy,” and he questioned her hair. She said there were also “oven Holocaust” jokes in elevators and groaning in classes whenever the Holocaust was discussed, and that antisemitic comments were made in the student government members.
“I’ve had moments where I’ve had breakdowns in the gym locker room,” Waronker said during the hearing, adding that she cried due to how bad the environment was.
At the hearing, which had three CUNY officials instead of the chancellor, none could name a single specific example of disciplinary action taken by CUNY against anyone due to antisemitism.
The CUNY Law School Student Government Association has endorsed BDS, and the Law School faculty supported the endorsement. Matos Rodriguez issued a public statement on May 30 that “CUNY does not support and to be clear cannot participate in BDS activities” and that the student or staff organizations spoke for themselves. He also noted that he traveled to Israel with 12 other CUNY college presidents on a trip organized by Jewish organizations, calling the experience “inspirational and educational.”
Earlier this month, the American Center for Law & Justice filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education that accused CUNY of having a hostile environment for Jews over the past decade and charges that “some of the harassment on CUNY campuses has become so commonplace as to almost be normalized. There have been numerous classes where Israeli soldiers are casually described as killers, and antisemitic flyers with vulgar comments about religious Jews – incredible as it may seem, even swastikas – are regularly observed on CUNY campuses.”
Jeffrey Lax, who also testified at the June 30 hearing, is Chair of Business at Kingsborough Community College. He is an Orthodox Jew and one of the founders of S.A.F.E. CUNY, an organization he said supports “free and civil discourse” as well as “academic freedom and inclusion” that was created in response to the hostile environment at CUNY.
Lax said he resigned from the union, known as the Professional Staff Congress, or PSC, as a result of their passing a resolution that vilified Israel and did not mention the violence of Hamas at all. An investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, known as the EEOC, determined that members of the union deliberately organized a meeting on the Sabbath to specifically exclude Lax. Lax said since that determination, the college president, Claudia Schrader, refused to meet with him and Chancellor Matos Rodriguez also would not meet with him.
“He’s a coward,” Lax told The Jewish Press.
He said Schrader didn’t speak out in 2019 when an Orthodox Jew was assaulted by a Kingsborough Community College student but has spoken out to defend members of other minority communities. He said she had claimed she’d been unaware of the assault, but he has proof that she knew – because he emailed her about it.
Jewish Kingsborough faculty member Michael Goldstein told this reporter in a previous interview that he was the target of a harassment campaign due to being pro-Israel and politically conservative.
Shrader has previously issued a public statement that her university doesn’t tolerate antisemitism of any kind.
At the hearing, dozens of students and faculty members alleged antisemitic incidents, with one student saying he had to stop wearing his yarmulka for a year out of fear for his safety.
Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin, who represents New York’s 1st District and who is running for governor of New York State and is Jewish, blasted the chancellor in a July 3 statement for not showing up to the hearing.
“For too long, CUNY leadership has looked the other way, empowering antisemitism to expand within its ranks,” Zeldin wrote, in part of his statement.
In the statement, there was no call for any specific resignation, but it ended with the phrase “It’s time to clean house.”
Lax said he welcomed any possible positive changes, but said much more needed to be done. He said the refusal to meet with him was disgusting.
“It’s very clear CUNY has a problem with Jews,” Lax said. “If I was part of any other protected class, this would not be happening.”